sort of change towards diversity or super diversity that is happening everywhere, happening in this town overnight. so my thought was maybe by going in understanding what works in community, what challenges they face, we can get a better sense of what's coming for the rest of us. .. >> during the whole process of
writing the book. people who edited, people who traveled out to montana to read pages on our couch out there and, you know, people who helped with my reporting. so i really appreciate you guys being here. and showing your support here again tonight. so, um, the idea of this book, actually, it was sort of born out of frustration, and the idea crystallized for me that the first and only time that i flew on air force one. i'd taken this job for "the washington post" where i'd been working for a while where it was my assignment to write sort of more personal, intimate stories about the presidency and what the president's life is like. and it only took me, like, maybe a week of doing that job to realize that the president doesn't really have personal, intimate moments, certainly none that i was going to get access to. everything about his life is outsourced in this, you know, really crazy way. he has 94 butlers and maids serve the family in the white house, six calligraphers write anything he wants written, 78
people make his schedule every day. i mean, it's this huge army that sort of helps him operate in this day-to-day way. and his schedule is subdivided into these 15-minute chunks, and there's a secretary who sits outside the oval office which actually has a reverse peephole so she can look in through the door at him and make sure things are running on schedule. he calls it the bubble, and i think sometimes it really drives him crazy. and in the few weeks that i'd been doing this job, it had been driving me crazy, probably also my editors crazy because i was not probably writing as many stories as they had hoped and not getting to those perm moments in obama's life. so, you know, finally after doing this, for, you know, it'd probably been a few months, my turn came up to fly on air force one. pretty much everybody who covers the president, like, your name is put into this huge database, and every time the president goes on a trip, you know,
it's -- they move through this database, and eight more people get their turn to fly on air force one. so my name came up, and i finally thought, all right, this is the moment where i'm going to see something, i'm going to be up close and, like, i'll have a chance to sort of experience what this is like a little bit for him. so, you know, got dressed up. obama flies out of a private air force base in virginia, you know, got dressed up, actually represented a car to -- rented a car to drive over there because rachel and i's car at the time was a battered pontiac grand am that we'd managed to keep functional by jerry rigging the hood down. it didn't feel appropriate to pull onto the tarmac next to air force one. [laughter] rented a car. i'm sure they gave me a volkswagen bug, but drove over there, waited with these eight other reporters as we waited for our turn to board the plane. we waited for maybe, i don't know, an hour, and then they led us up. there are two entrances on air
force one. they led us up this back one that's kind of back by the, you know, far rear of the airplane. we walked up the stairs, we sat down, and they said, okay, wait here, we're waiting for the president to arrive at the airport. so we waited for maybe a half an hour, then we heard, okay, the president is arriving at the airport. and you've never seen reporters move this fast. there was a mad scramble to get back off the plane to watch the president's motorcade arrive, and then we saw him walk six steps up the separate entrance of the plane to the front. those six steps were very illuminating, we saw what he was wearing, and we all were perhapsically taking notes about it -- frantically taking notes about it. we flew to new hampshire, we scrambled off the plane as fast as we could to watch the president walk those six steps again back into his motorcade. we followed behind separately in a different car to the event. this event, actually, there was not enough time or space for the
press to go into the event with him, so we were off site in a satellite location where we watched the speech on a closed circuit tv, and we were taking notes that way. so i was sitting there feeling, you know, honestly, just really frustrated with trying to write about the presidency in any kind of meaningful way, and i was listening to his speech, and i heard him say something that i'd heard him talk about before, but it just sort of clicked. he talked about these ten letters that he reads every night which are a sampling of the 20,000 letters that come in to the white house every day, and he talked about these letters were what he felt like were his only direct connection to the people he governed. and he said that the letters were the thing that sometimes kept him sane when he felt like he was so barricaded from so many other things. and i realized pretty quickly that that was something that seemed personal and real and genuine, and that was something i wanted to try to write about.
so that's what i did. it started with a story for the post. i wrote a longer piece about the process of getting these ten letters to his desk, then the paper was generous enough to give me a leave for a year where i did go out to montana, and i think they have totally eliminated the distinguished from that professor title now, but, so went out there and wrote, and at the end of this year finally did get time on the president's schedule where that secretary was looking in through that reverse peephole at us while we talked about the letters. and i'll read, i'll read a brief part of the book now that sort of, you know, is from that half hour i had with him about what this mail means to him. the president said the hardest letters for him to read were the ones that made him feel remote, even powerless. people tended to write to their president when circumstances turned dire, sealing a prayer into an envelope as a matter of last resort. what resulted even day inside
obama's purple folder was an intimate view of hardship and perm struggle -- personal struggle, a wave of desperation. so many writers needed urgent help, obama said, and yet the act of governing was so slow that it sometimes took years before legislation could actually improve people's lives. a few times during his presidency obama had been so moved by a letter that he had written a personal check or made a phone call on the writer's behalf believing it was the only way to insure a fast result. it's not something i should advertise, but it has happened, he said. many other times he had forwarded letters to government agencies or cabinet secretaries after attaching a standard handwritten note that read, can you, please, take care of this? these letters can be heartbreaking, just heartbreaking, he said. some you read, and you say, gosh, i really want to help this person, and i may not have the tools to help them right now. and then you start thinking about the fact that for every one person who wrote describing their story, there might be another 100,000 going through
the same thing. so there are times when i'm reading the letters, and i feel pain that i can't do more faster to make a difference in their lives. he said his nightly reading in the white house sometimes made him pine for his days as a community organizer back in the 1980s when he was making $10,000 a year and working on the south side of chicago. he had just graduated from college, and he purchased a used car for $2,000 and spent his days driving around the city's housing projects to speak with residents about their lives. he became familiar with many of the same issues that would flood his mail 25 years later; housing calamities, chronic unemployment and struggling schools. obama's fellow organizers in chicago considered him a master of hands-on, granular problem solving. he was skinny and boyish, a good listener if still a bit naive, and some of the older women in the housing projects made a habit of inviting him into their homes and cooking for him. he looked around their apartments, keeping a log of maintenance issues and delivering that list to the landlord. he helped arrange meetings with
city housing officials to talk about asbestos problems. he established a tenants' rights organization, founded a job training program and led a tutoring group that prepared students for college. when he left for harvard law school after three years in chicago, obama had set his path for his future. he wanted to become a politician, a job that would allow him to listen to people's problems and enjoy the simple satisfaction of solving them. now, he was the most powerful politician of all, and yet fixing problems seemed more difficult and satisfaction more elusive. the people were right there in front of me, and i could say let's go to the alderman's office, or let me be an advocate in some fashion, obama said. and here just because of the nature of the office and the scope of the issues, you're removed in ways that are frustrating. sometimes what you want to do is pick up the phone and say tell me more about what's going on, and let me see if i can be your social worker, your advocate, your mortgage adviser, your employment count -- counselor.
so i have a very specific role to play in this office, and i've got to make a bunch of big decisions that you hope in the aggregate will end up having a positive effect over this many lives, but you can't be certain. that was one of the reasons that obama had taken to responding by happened to a few letters each night. he stilled liked the satisfaction of responding to one thing, immediate and concrete. so what i was going to write about and really the part of the book that i enjoyed the most was i would go and spend a week, you know, more than that sometimes with these people who had written to the president and received back responses to him, watching their problems unfold. and, you know, that was by far, i guess, the biggest privilege in this for me was getting the chance -- i think the mail that comes in to him and that comes in in that folder of ten letters every night, it is so remarkably diverse. it comes from all kinds of people, people who despise him,
people who love him, mostly just from people who are writing about what's going on in their lives. and these really sering ways. they're sort of like these journal entries. they're so personal because people don't necessarily expect he's ever going to read them, and then for me to be able to go spend time with those people and, you know, be there with them while they were, you know, trying to reform a school or filing for bankruptcy or making these big decisions in their lives, um, was a huge privilege to see sort of how that works on a small scale while watching how the president's trying to deal with those problems in this big, sweeping way. so the bulk of the book really is stories of these people's lives and, you know, their ty journalism of watching how these people go. so the other passage i'm going to read before, i hope, taking some questions is a slightly longer passage, but i think it'll just give you a feel for what this book really is like. this is a couple that wrote a
letter to the president, um, when they were just going through a brutal stretch. it's a woman and her husband, they lived in monroe, michigan, which is this really bleak town in michigan halfway through, halfway from toledo and detroit, and actually you'd rather be in either toledo or detroit than either of these places. and jen, the woman had lost her job, her husband, jay, ran a pool business, he'd lost that job. she'd then been diagnosed with cancer, and she wrote a note to the president just sort of kind telling him what things were like for them there. he wrote back a pretty sort of inspirational note to her, and they decided once they got this note, the president sort of told them that things could get better for them, and they should take steps to make it better, and what they decided to do, the only thing they could think was they decided they needed to file for bankruptcy and try to get a fresh start on this tremendous debt that had mounted in their lives. so i went there with them while
they were going through this process, and this passage that i'm going to read, um, is the scene of their bankruptcy hearing, in the day. they woke at six on the morning of the bankruptcy hearing looking as if they'd never slept. jen had broken her ankle the day before in another stroke of bad luck when she tripped going down the stairs, and now all she could think about was a vicodin and a cigarette. jay had a headache that was threatening to become a migraine. he walked out of their bedroom to discover three loads of unfolded laundry spread across the floor, crusty dishes on the kitchen table and their youngest son, 2-year-old jaden, awake and wailing because of an ear ache. jay checked on the ear ache and escaped with jen to the back porch where each had stored a half-smoked cigarette. this was their latest concession to the economic collapse, to smoke each marlboro medium in two shifts. the plan was to cut their consumption in half, but instead
they were smoking twice as often, wasting gas to strive ten minutes to a walmart that offered the best cigarette prices. jay smoked his half cigarette down to the edge of the facilitier and flicked it into the air. i don't know if i can do this, he said. you have to, jen said. i've got five hours of work left to finish this pool, jay said. i've got the late shift at the airport. we've got one kid screaming and another on a field trip, but i have to drop everything and drive all the way to ann arbor just to prove we're broke? i'm sorry, jen said. there's no choice. jay searched through his closet for an outfit. the last time he'd dressed up was for their wedding, five months and 15 pounds ago. he found another pair of wrinkled khakis stuffed in the back of the closet and smoothed them with an iron. they fit, but he couldn't find a belt to match. he walked to the bathroom mirror and try today knot a tie once, twice, three times and still the thing ended up dangling above
his belly button. dammit, he said. he went into the living room to show jen his partial outfit. you look good, she said. i feel like an idiot, he said. jen went outside to smoke another half cigarette, and jay disappeared into the closet again. this time when he came out, he didn't ask for feedback. he was wearing skateboard shoes, jeans, a frayed cloth belt and oversized detroit tigers t-shirt and a baseball hat stained white. he tucked a cigarette behind each ears and grabbed his car keys. this will have to work, he said, and then he kissed jen good-bye. he drove across the street to order a coffee with three creams and three sugars, then he pulled onto the highway and drove to ann arbor. he kept the radio off and thought about the other times he'd traveled this highway. he'd live inside ann arbor, dated a college girl and worked on swimming pools when the economy was booming.
customers had often paid him in cash, so he traveled with a stack of $20 bills in his pocket. he'd celebrated a friend's birthday at the fanciest steakhouse in town where waiters refolded his napkin, and the $8 salad looked like yard debris. now he drove past that restaurant and parked in front of the courthouse. framed photos of obama and vice president joe biden hung on the wall at the entrance just beyond the metal detectors. directly above was a printed sign, "bankruptcy proceedings," it said, with an arrow pointing up the courthouse stairs. jay followed the sign to the second floor lounge where bankruptcy hearings had taken place every other wednesday for a year. it looked like the waiting room of the doctor's office with four televisions hanging from the ceiling and back issues of fortune magazine -- an ironic choice -- spread across coffee tables. 40 chairs were arranged around the room.
the judge sat in this a tailored suit at a white folding table. jay found a chair near the back of the room and surveyed the people sitting around him. there was an elderly black man wearing mismatched tennis shoes, a motorcyclist in a harley davidson t-shirt. an obese woman whose jeans, worn too low, forced mounds of flesh to spill into plain view. later, jay would learned that many of these people had been advised to look as destitute as possible. dress to depress, not to impress. in his stained baseball hat, jay was the most dapper client in the room. his lawyer, whom he had never met, arrived 20 minutes late, mumbled an apology about bad bankruptcy traffic, and pulled jay into the hallway for a consultation. thanks for coming, sir, jay said. the lawyer casually tossed a pen into the air with his right hand.
sure, sure, he said. glad to help. it was a good day for the lawyer. he would represent four of the other people filing for bankruptcy, earning 1300 per case. jay and jen had already started sending him monthly payment checks as part of the payment plan ip curing one new -- incurring one new debt. so remind me again why you're filing, the lawyer asked. lots of reasons, jay said, but mainly because my pool business went under. really? i thought you guys meant -- made a lot of money in pools. my brother just bought one, and it's costing him 30 grand. we didn't get many orders like that, jay said. the lawyer shrug ld, and jay grabbed a pen and started to write. he wrote, 14,000 under income of spouse. under 2009 income, 23,000. he checked a few boxes, signed the bottom of the form and handed it back to the lawyer. okay, the lawyer said, here's how this is going to go. the officiant will call us up, and he'll ask you a few
questions. keep your answers short and polite. there shouldn't be anything too confusing. if all goes well, you'll be granted your bankruptcy. don't be nervous, i do this all the time. trust me, this is a piece of cake. jay nodded, and they went back into the lounge where the fish yapt stood to announce the beginning of the proceedings. the room fell silent. jay leaned forward in his seat to listen. one by one, people filing for bankruptcy walked to the front of the room and sat across from the officiant at the white table. they raised their right hands and offered their testimony. the soundtrack of a recession. case one, the primary reason i'm filing for bankruptcy is that i was the owner/opener of a truck business. that went bad. now i have no truck and no business. case two, i'm in sales, and there's no commission anymore. i sell copiers and printers. it's a full-time job and, sir, i made only 11,000 last year. case three, my son's on welfare and not doing so good, so now
i'm supporting all five of the grandkids. thirty minute into the hearing, the bankruptcy officiant stood up and called for jason stanley klein. jay walked to the front of the room with his lawyer, and they sat side by side at the white folding table. the officiant stared back at them. he was a muscular man with a crew cut, a clenched jaw and dark circles under his eyes. he'd been processing cases every other wednesday for 21 years supervising what he called a nonstop parade of misery from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. it had always been a hard job, but lately it was becoming unbearable. bankruptcy cases were at an all-time high with more than 1.57 million people filing for it nationally during the 12 month period ending at the end of 2010. he had processed 1700 bankruptcies in 2009, his busiest year ever, and he was on pace towards 50% more in 2010. the preparation for each case required 60 pages of paperwork,
but no amount of groundwork made the face to face meetings any easier. people filing for bankruptcy seemed more desperate than ever, he thought, and more likely to snap. they shouted, they cried, they slammed their fists on the table. lately, he had been forced to call in the court-martial to handle a violet outburst about once a month. he thought of his job as similar to that of an emergency room physician. after a while, you've seep a lot of the same babe and suffering -- pain and suffering, he said. you know the stories, people are sick, unemployed, homeless. i don't want to say you become jaded necessarily, but you have to look at their problems objectively and move forward in an efficient manner. now he looked at the next case, jason stanley klein, case number 1045682. so, he said, what caused the bankruptcy? >> i went into business at a bad time in this a bad location, and a lot of my debt stemmed from that, jay replied. the officiant studied jay's
bankruptcy filing. not long ago he believed most bankruptcies were from a string of mistakes. he saw bad luck, declining wages, housing foreclosure and unemployment. sometimes he studied a case and thought immediately of one of his favorite expressions, there but for the grace of god go i. he continued to do his job, he said, because the paycheck kept him on the right side of the white table. he looked across at jay. is everything you filed here accurate? yes, sir, jay said. then i have no further questions. that completes your exam. jay stood up and walked out of the courtroom. the lawyer followed him into the hall and squeezed his shoulder. no further questions means they're going to grant you the bankruptcy, the lawyer said. jay nodded. he shook the lawyer's hand, walked out to his car and drove back to monroe. he called jen from the road. it's done, he said. let's celebrate. they met at a mexican restaurant in monroe where the lunch
entrees cost $4.95 and came big enough the split. jen wrapped her arms around jay when he pulled into the parking lot. they smoked their half cigarettes and then went inside to order, a beer for him and a margarita for her. it was 11:15 a.m. jay had to work later that night, jen had to take jaden to the doctor to check on the ear ache. mare yap chi music played in the background. they sat on the same side of the booth holding hands. jay took off his hat, smirked and raised his glass. to bankruptcy, he said. to fresh starts, she said. to 2010, he said. so, um, you know, the book, i think, it reveals a lot of what was going on in the country over the course of that year that i was reporting, and for jen and jay, you know, one of the heavier stories in the book, over the course of the year they filed for bankruptcy, they got bankruptcy, their debts continued to mount, things did not get better, and at the end
of the year and at the end of the book in this really heartbreaking moment they decided they were going to take their first trip to new york city because an autograph dealer there had been, you know, writing them again and again and again, a dealer who knew that they'd gotten a letter from the president and, eventually, jen and jay drove to new york, sold this letter for $10,000 so that they could pay off these debts. so that was one very direct case where this, you know, this exchange had a pretty profound impact on these people's lives. other stories in the here are certainly more hopeful, and, you know, the mix in that envelope ranges from, you know, sort of this kind of devastation to, you know, kids writing who were inspired by obama and running for class president themselves and doing well because of it. but one of the things that i find just astounding about this process every day, the fact that, you know, the president reads these ten letters every day, i mean, for me, reading that for a year and having no control over everything, i mean,
it's, it's pretty humbling in terms of what people are going through in their lives in the country, and people tend to write when things are, you know, things are difficult for them. as a journalist, i know that usually most of the feedback i get is people who write because they're upset about something, and i think, you know, what he reads reflects that. so, but i also think he's, it is a fixture of what he does, and he'll continue to read all ten as long as he's in office. i mean, so far the mix of letters in there has not gotten easier, it's probably in some ways gotten more difficult, so we'll see how that mix changes in the time to come. but i'd love to talk, questions, anything. you guys want more uplifting stories, we can switch into that mode. [laughter] yeah. >> i've got a bunch, so i'll try to limit it. you say he gets 20,000 a day or a week? >> a day. yeah. >> how does that get down to ten? >> >> it is a crazy process that requires, basically, an army.
so mail used to be handled inside the white house itself before the anthrax scare, and then they decided it was too big a risk to have all the stuff come anything there. so they took over this office build anything downtown where on the ninth floor of this building 50 employees, like, 100 interns and 1500 volunteers sort true this deluge of mail that comes in every day. and they're very specific about measuring the metrics of the mail. so e-mails are, like, automatically categorized into one of 75 folders that people likely, are likely to write about. and you know, and they measure every day, okay, today we got 20% of our mail about occupy wall street, half of it was negative, half of it was positive, you know? and they take these metrics, and they make sure that the ten they give to obama reflect the general feel of what's coming in. so pretty much the people who select these letters for him are these, the staffers in that office, it's, you know, it's people who it's their first job in d.c., they maybe worked on
the campaign. they go in, they read 300 of these letters a day, they pick five over the course of a day that was representative of sort of the main issues but also stand out in some -- you know, that stick with them. those letters go to the director of the officers' desk who looks at 100 of these potential letters and picks ten that he feels like represents what came in that day. so, yeah, it's -- it requires an army. yeah. >> and how many did you read over the course of this, and how did you pick your ten? did you, were you looking for ten that were representative, or were you just looking for the really amazing stories? >> i mean, lucky, i could kind of do both because there were -- it was sort of a reporter's dream in that you could take one day and just by the fact that 20,000 letters have already been reduced to ten, those are going to be ten really probably pretty good, compelling stories. so to then be able to pick -- i was able to read hundreds of letters over the course of the
year. so to be able to pick from this huge wealth of letters, it was, it was hard to pick the ten that i wanted to follow. i did, i mean, the few things for me were i wanted to pick -- i wanted a mix. i wanted stories like jen and jay, but i also wanted stories that were letters that were funny or fun or, um, so that was one thing. also i was looking for letters that impacted his presidency in a profound way. and some of these letters, some of the letters in the book, um, really have been transformative for him and also for the people that wrote. letters that he has used to pass major bits of legislation by talking about the letter again and again and again or times when he's responded to a letter writer and then gone to that person's hometown to give a major speech. so i was looking for things like that. also, and this is a little bit, like, maybe inside journalism shoptalk, but i was looking for stories that i could still go and watch things unfold. i mean, it -- the book, i think,
would be a very static book if i was just going back and reporting on this person wrote because of this and this person wrote because of this. i wanted the letters to sort of be a beginning point for me where, you know, somebody's writing about something they're going through, and i can go watch and be there while they're going through this. so -- other questions? thoughts? criticisms? open to all things. [laughter] yeah? >> i thought this -- i've read the book. >> oh, cool, thanks. >> and i thought it was, i thought it was excellent. i thought it was something that should be read in schools because i think that was a very -- i think that was one of the messages that sort of came out of it is that, you know, that you can, you can connect, you can, you know, make your voice heard. but i thought the story about the health care, about the woman in ohio who was so ill and the fact that her story would kind of clinch that health care deal
and was absolutely amazing. >> oh, thanks so much. >> and -- >> i really appreciate that. yeah, the story that she's referencing in the book which probably is the letter that over the last three years has had the most profound impact on the president, it came from a cleaning woman in ohio who wrote a letter to say, basically, my health care premiums have skyrocketed, and i can't afford to pay them them in. i've had to choose between keeping my house or my health insurance, i'm giving up my health insurance. the president immediately recognized sort of the potential of this letter. he was just beginning to try to pass his health care reform, and so at the white house they talked about, well, maybe we should bring this woman here and have her talk to some major health insurance companies. so they called her to see if she'd be willing to do that. at that point, two weeks had passed. during these two weeks right after she'd given up her health care, she'd been diagnosed with leukemia and given a 35% chance
to live. so, you know, it was this really, um, you know, it was sort of impactful moment for both the president and this woman whose name is natoma canfield. he then decided, okay, instead of having her try to come here, i will go there. he gave a major speech there, and sort of turned her boo this mayor icon for his health care reform bill. and, you know, they wrote back and forth more than once, and for me the most sort of moving and, um, hard part, probably the hardest chapter in the book to report because i was then there with natoma while she was -- her immune system was so fragile that she was, essentially, barricaded in her own house, and her sister and i spent time with her and went to chemo with her as she was just scrapping tooth and nail for her life. and really what fortified her during that stretch was not only these letters that she was getting from the president, but also because she had become kind of this icon of health care reform, she then was getting
letters from all across the country, people writing to recommend, you know, eat mashed potatoes if you're struggling with the chemo, people sending checks. and for her during this, like, incredibly bleak time, you know, i think it kept her alive. i'm sure she thinks it kept her alive. and she's still alive. still in and out to have -- out of the hospital. it impacted the president and her in a pretty profound way. thanks for reading. i really appreciate it. yeah. >> i was really struck by the access people gave you to their lives. i was sort of imagining you, you know, at the breakfast table. it seemed like you were right there for all these moments. what does that look like? you just show up and live with them for a period of time? >> kind of, yeah. it's a tremendous privilege to be able to do, and it's kind of what i usually do for the paper too. so in this case i'm always amazed just as a journalist in general by how willing people are to open up their lives to a writer. i mean, which is not an ease she
thing -- easy thing to do. to have me go to your bankruptcy hearing with you, it's like a very -- it's a lot to ask of somebody. >> or your chemo. >> there yeah, or your chemo. in this case people write to the president often times because they want to know that their lives matter and that their stories count and that somebody's listening to them. and so then in these cases when i called and said, you know, the president did read this letter, what you're going through does matter, and i want to come, and i want to write about it because, you know, it -- i want to write about it in this up-close, honest way, and across the board people were totally open and willing to having me do that. and, and, you know, just in terms of how those trips usually go, and there are other people in the room who do them, my experience with them is the first, the first day of a trip like that can be, um, a little bit awkward or hard. people are nervous and, you know, it's -- those days are the hardest. usually by, like, the second or
third day that you're there, you kind of stop being the writer/reporter, and you start being you, i or joe, and that's when i think you really get to the best stuff because this level of intimacy which is why i knew i wanted letters where i could spend time with these people. because just going back and reporting on why people wrote, you can get to a certain layer of depth, just being there while things are unfolding, it's a different kind of thing and helps you get to that next level. >> i'm glad you add the epilogue because before i finished the book, i was looking on the internet whether natoma, how she was doing. you know, you get invested. >> yeah, sure, thanks. >> did anybody turn you down? >> nobody turned me down. and, you know, that, honestly, it made it hard to pick the letters i was going to write about. so, usually in picking a letter the other thing i was looking for i wanted, you know, there were some big issues over the course of the year that i knew i
wanted. i wanted a letter about the oil spill. so finding -- sometimes i would say, okay, here are ten letters i could pick about immigration. and then i would call, you know, ten of those people and have these initial sort of half hour, 40-minute conversations just to kind of get a feel for if it was going to work. and sometimes narrowing those six, seven, eight, ten to one was, yeah, brutal. you know, i feel like i could have written 100 letters. nobody would have read it after the first ten. [laughter] but, you know, it's, it was hard to narrow it down to that number. yeah. >> so were there, did you take ten trips? was it ten trips, or did you spend time with people who didn't make it into the book? >> i never -- good question. i never made, i never went out of town for a long trip and then said, okay, this is going to be on the cutting room floor. i made more than ten trips because sometimes just because of what people were going through. i would go for a few days and
then come back and then go again for, you know, to be there for a big bankruptcy hearing, a first day of college. so it ended up being more than ten trips in that way, but i never, you know, i never went somewhere and felt like this really isn't going to work. and, you know, also just in my job for the paper where i do the same kind of thing, it's -- that doesn't happen very often, and i don't think it's because i get there and i'm getting incredible material and, you know, i'm not good at what i'm doing. i think a lot of it is that people are just, people are really interesting, and if you get to that level, i think with almost anybody, people's lives are really interesting. and if you can write about them in textured ways, there are very few people whose lives you go and you find, jeez, this is just really boring. i think if you -- [laughter] if you were feeling that way, you're probably still at, like, a very surface level. so, yeah. yeah. >> did the white house approve the ten letters that you
selected? >> they did not, no. i had to battle with them for access to be able to read letters and to say, basically, i want to do this book, and we need to work it out so that i get to read the letters he reads. that was, that was a process and a long process. but i -- once i had that access, you know, they were not, i picked whatever letters i wanted to pick which, i think, honestly, that worked for them because what, why the president likes to talk about these letters, i think, and why they like to talk about these letters so much is they want to show that he's listening to everybody. so the fact that i knew i wanted to write about, you know, one of the letters in the book is from a republican in texas who writes this really angry e-mail late at night. i knew i wanted something like that in the book. but also, like, i think for them they wanted to show that, yeah, he hears that person too. he reads whatever comes in. so that made it work out. yeah. >> seems like this book --
[inaudible] teaching journalism and poly-sci. do you know if it's being assigned to classes? seems like it ought to be. >> are oh, thanks. i appreciate that. i don't know if it is. i hope it'll be. you know, maybe i can pull some strings at montana and have one class of 15 kids -- [laughter] but that's probably the extent. but thank you. yeah. >> has the president read the book? >> i don't know. he's gotten a copy. i doubt he's read the book just in terms of, like, how much he has going on and, also, i was thinking about in the other day because in, like, a more, like thinking, wow, maybe he's read the book moment, i was just thinking about what he reads, and then i remembered that everything he reads is, like, very, very public. and they release, the white house occasionally releases here's what's on the president's reading list, and it would probably look weird if he's reading this book about the mail he reads. [laughter] so it would look like a little conceited somehow. so there are probably -- >> other things. >> i'm sure he does.
but, yeah, i sent him a copy, and i sent him a handwritten note. i don't know if it got through the mail room, but, no, i think it did. he has a copy. i don't know if he'll read it or not. yeah. >> hi. my name's bishop. >> hi. >> and i vice president read the book, but i'm planning on it. >> cool, thanks. >> were you in contact with the president throughout while you were writing? i know you said you had an interview -- >> i was in contact with his staff, but there are some people -- very few people, but there are some people who work in his add martian that i know well enough at this point that i could sort of, you know, if i was writing -- the book was kind of an education for me because these chapters are all about different issues, and so one of my challenges was, like, to learn about, for instance, education policy and learn about it enough that then you can write about education policy in an interesting way is hard. so during that i would be talking to people, like, you know, arne duncan and people on his staff and trying to learn about what they were trying to
do with education and learn that way. i wasn't talking with the president about any of it until the end. >> right. >> um, and then i went in and had, you know, 30 or 40 minutes to sort of talk in general about the letters and, also, talk specifically about the letters in the book. >> did you ever get to -- [inaudible] office? >> i did, yeah, which is just a crazy and really cool place. i mean, it's, like, this building is this filter between the public and the president. and so if you send an e-mail, it lands on one of the computers there. if you send a letter, it goes there. if you call the white house comment line, there are 35 people that sit at a phone bank and pick up the phone and try to keep all those calls to two minutes. there is by far the most fascinating, there's a gift room. like, you know, hundreds and hundreds of people send the president gifts which is sort of a strange instinct. and they send these really, really weird things. [laughter] sometimes, like, you know, just like when he was interested in
getting a dog, the white house received a handful of different puppies that were mailed to the -- yeah, i mean, it's this, and it used to be worse. in the reading about, like, the history of this mail room, there were presidents who were big game hunters they'd sometimes receive big game animals, tigers, different things like this that would just land at the white house. so the gift room is probably the coolest place. it's really strange. yeah, the gift room. spent some time with a tiger, yeah. [laughter] could be a book. that room is really cool. so -- >> so i have a question with the, i'm sure there were letters of threats that he would receive. what do they do with those letters? >> yeah. the first thing that happens with any mail is it goes through this weeklong screening process where it's scanned for, you know, chemical threats, radiological threats. so that happens first. then it comes into this office, and the reason that they have this huge staff is there's a
rule there that every single letter has to be read because, who knows, you know, buried in one of these letters could be some kind of credible threat. so that's why they've decided we need to make sure that a person reads every single one of these letters. and letters that are threats are flagged immediately and, you know, go places much higher than to me. but, you know, also, like, on the comment line, even people calling in to the white house, all those phones have a red button that automatically transfers both suicide calls and threats which is, was astounding to me that enough people call the white house with either because they're going to commit suicide or because they're calling with this threat that they have a button on every phone that just automatically transfers it. so, yeah, it is sad. i mean, people call there for all kinds of things. yeah. crazy place, you know? it was, it's just, i think that whole building is like this window into, um, the window, this window into the relationship between the public and the president and, you know,
both the fact that things get to him which is great and also what it takes to get things to him which is really illuminate anything this other way too. so any other questions? >> i don't remember if you talked about this in the book or not. has the volume increased with obama? because i know, you know, there is -- [inaudible] because he has talked about the letters, and he has, you know, complained about not being able to have his own blackberry and that kind of thing, and so my guess would be that people feel as though he's somehow more accessible? is -- >> i think definitely the volume, especially at first, the volume was, like, more than they had ever seen. like, right when he was going into office -- >> of any president? >> of any president. and i think that's partly the historic nature of his election, you know, partly it's that letters -- especially e-mails -- are much easier to send now. people can go, you know, letters are one thing. e-mails, like, you can go to the
white house web site, and you can send an e-mail very quickly, and people do, you know? thousands of people a day. so the volume at the beginning was, like, skyrocketing high, and it stayed, you know, it came down a little bit, but it stayed very steady, and i actually had coffee with the director of the mail room today who said that they've noticed it's already climbing again, and she thinks that for the next year before the election it's going to be crazy in there. you know, people, people write, i think, probably more when politics are big and in the news and in their minds which is a lot of the time but, obviously, that's influenced. so, yeah. >> great talk. >> thank you so much. thank you for coming, everybody, i really, really appreciate you guys being here, and, yeah, thanks for all the support. i hope those of you who vice hat read it enjoy it, and those who do read it, appreciate it. >> this event was hosted by one
more page books in the arlington, virginia. for more information visit one more page books.com. >> up next, booktv interviews rick bragg while touring birmingham, alabama, as part of our cities tour, looking at the literary landscape of eight southern cities. mr. bragg reports on the mill workers of the foothills of northern alabama. .. >> they would hang out the
windows trying to get a breath of air. kids would ride by in cars and in wagons, and see it and it would scare them to death. these were people that lost their fingers, hands and arms to the machines, and we're grateful to have the work because they came down out of the mountains, walking barefoot, came down with all their children in a line. and the mill hired all of them. hired the men and women and the babies. because the children were viable. their hands were small and they could reach into the gears of the machines, unclog them. [inaudible] >> eight, nine, 10. >> can you tell me more about the town of jacksonville
alabama? >> it's a great town. it's a beautiful town. i said once it's almost like someone painted it in hung it on the air. it nestles in the foothills of the appalachians, surrounded by beautiful mountains and not far from the river. issues one of the most beautiful places on earth. but the civil war wrecked the region, a lot of people there call it the rich man's war. it wrecked the region, starved the region. then came the reconstruction. it was almost like the civil war faded into reconstruction, and reconstruction aid into the great depression. not much changed.
for the poor, for the poor. and the mill came in the early years of the 20th century, and was salvation. these people, you know, were sharecroppers are subsistence farmers. they dug wells, they cut timber, and all of the sudden there is inside work, steady. and it saved them. and they see it, that daughters and sons, grandsons and granddaughters see al salvation. >> how much did they get paid? >> next to nothing. it buried over the years from, you know, nickels and dimes an hour, pocket change, you know,
to a few dollars a week. even after roosevelt demanded a decent wage for them, the mill owners they are just refuse to pay it. and defied the federal government successfully, and broke the union. so mill owners kind of paid what they knew they had to pay, which, considering these poor mountain people, where they came from, was not very much. now, as the 50 states into the '60s and the '60s into the '70s, it became a decent paying job. the machines, while never safe, got safer. and by the '70s and '80s, if
you work for a cotton you are making as good money as much as a blue-collar worker except maybe some coal miners. steelworkers. >> you said that people are losing their fingers, their hands, and in the beginning getting paid next to nothing. why were they so loyal? >> they were so loyal because there was nothing. there was nothing else there. there were potshots and steel mills in the bigger cities. but to understand why you would work in a place that kept a part of you at quitting time, you had to understand that these are folks who don't want to go anywhere else. they don't want to move. you know, a lot of their 10 folks went to detroit and hung the bumpers on cadillacs. it was important to these people
to live in the mountains of their fathers. it was important to them that live in a place where talk to your run across the road in front of their cars, that they lived in a place where the grandmothers put jelly up in the windowsill. it was important to them that when they died, nobody sent their body home on a train. >> when did the mill close? >> oh, it closed after, after a hundred years. i think it was 2001. >> and what did that to the jacksonville, alabama? >> well, it would be a romantic story to say that the economy, you know, bottomed out and all that. that's not true. the mill became a lesser force in the economy, although still a force. jacksonville state university,
college, became the economic force in town. it wasn't that there was a whole lot of new industry. there wasn't. you worked with your hands were living in this country, you don't have any champions. and so the mill faded out of existence, and a lot of those workers, my brother was one of them, went to work for jobs that paid less. my brother works for the city. unit, they went to work for jobs that don't pay as much, but are not as dangerous and don't wreck their health. you know, a lot of them said they would work for nothing so they could have insurance.
so juno, account went on about its collective life, but the cotton mill workers often wound up in jobs that just did not pay as well so the standard of living fell. now some got very lucky, went to work for honda, went to work for some new plants around the state where they had to travel. the town went on about its life, but it really was as though the kind of blue-collar heart of the place as i called in the book, the bleeding blue heart of the place, kind of went still. it is such an odd thing to get your hands around, because when my brother lost his job, i know
that it killed him because, for these people, the work is the thing. people love to talk about southerners in clichés, you know. we live for stock car racing and hunting and fishing and football. and you know, we handle snakes and we chew a lot of tobacco. what we really, what my people are about, is work. they talk about work. they talk about how many, how many feet of wood flooring they later that day. they talk about, you know, how much pulp would they cut. they talk about how many bricks the lady. -- how many bricks they laid. what they're really about is work. and if you take the work away,
if you take machines way, and they did. they took the machines for south america, to asia, if you take the work away then you take something out on them that can't be put back. so, while you hate the fact that it killed so many people, so many people died young and died gasping from brown long, while the hate all that, you also hate to see that tool taken out of their hands. there ain't no perfect world, and there is no perfect solution. i just know that it is missed, it is badly missed. >> what prompted you to write this book? >> i promised these folks that i would write it. a lot of the folks that i bumped
into in my hometown, i had a newspaper story about it a long time ago when it shut down. and five, a lot of these folks in my hometown, these older folks, have helped me on previous books. and i promised them that if i ever could, i would write them their own book. one old fellow in particular, his name is homer barnwell. and homer went to work in the mill and his mommy and daddy work themselves to death. he went to work in the mill after world war ii, and one day after walking across europe fight the germs that he looked round him and all the carnage and the noise, and the people trying to breathe, and he walked out, but he was always part of the mill village. he lives there now, and his mom and daddy, again, who gave their
lives to the place, are such a part of it. i thought all those stores were worth 200 i told him i would tell the story of his mom and daddy. i do see him, you know, at a high school graduation or something. i was deeply ashamed not to have done the book already. so finally we got a chance to do it. did it for pretty good reasons, i think. glad it's done. i'm glad it's on the show. i'm very proud of it. >> how is this book different from the other books you have written? >> it was similar and that it probably wasn't necessary about family. i did not dwell on my brother's story. i told in a handful of essays of other people. but they're almost family. these people are friends and they are people that i know on the street. it's different in that it's -- the book on families had
moments, even though there was killing and dying and fighting and poverty and struggle and sacrifice, there's also moments where i hope people laughed out loud, moments where i hope they smiled. this book was a little grimmer, a little grimmer, a little sadder. it did not -- i'm glad it didn't. i hope that it people right in the stomach. it didn't give you much of a chance to breathe. >> for people who don't live in jacksonville, or even the state of alabama, when they pick up this book and they really, what do you want them to take away from it? >> that the country is changing. people love to say well, we have a service economy now. well, what do we serve? people work -- i've heard this
said. this is not an original thought. they work at wal-mart to eat at ruby tuesday's, or they work at ruby tuesdays to shop at wal-mart. there was a time when being able to pick up a tool meant that you could pound out a living. and with that living came an incredible dignity, and incredible power of self, and the feeling, a capable feeling where, just hand me a tool and i will make something out of this life. well, we've taken the tools aw away. so the people are still here. those people are still here. and you know, they are